Violence Between Rebels And Military Grows In Syria

Robert Siegel talks to Deborah Amos about heavy fighting that has broken out in the Syrian capital of Damascus. Government troops — reportedly backed by helicopter gunships — are battling rebels in at least four districts of the capital. Some Syrian activists say the 16 month uprising is reaching a tipping point.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

In Syria's capital, Damascus, the violence escalated today as the Syrian army unleashed mortar and artillery fire and deployed helicopter gunships against rebel fighters in at least four districts of the city.

(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTER)

SIEGEL: That sound from a YouTube video posted today by a Syrian activist. It purports to show helicopters flown by the Syrian military flying over the district of Midan in Damascus. There has been nonstop fighting in the Syrian capital for the past three days, and civilians have been fleeing the hardest-hit neighborhoods.

NPR's Deborah Amos has been monitoring developments. And she joins us now from Istanbul. And, Deb, let's start by describing, as best you can, what's happening in Damascus today and where it's happening.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Robert, the most important thing is where. Some of the fiercest fighting over the past three days has been in the neighborhood, as you mentioned, Midan. It is seven minutes drive from the Four Seasons Hotel. This is a big luxury hotel in the middle of the city. It's a place that the tourists might go. But today, it looked like a war zone.

In the videos emerging from Damascus, Midan was hit with mortars and artillery shells. You can see rebels fighting from behind mounds of rubble. The rebels say they've captured a tank and they've downed a helicopter. If that's confirmed, it would be the first indication that they have some advanced weapons. This kind of heavy fighting and army response also took place in four other neighborhoods around the capital. It's unprecedented.

SIEGEL: Well, if it's unprecedented, Deb - and the rebels released a statement today saying that the battle for Damascus has begun - does that mean that this is the beginning of a new phase in the Syrian revolt?

AMOS: Robert, it's unlikely that the rebels can actually defeat the Syrian military. They are up against tanks and helicopters. It is significant for the psychological impact. Unlikely to be decisive, but it's a shift in tactics. And for residents of Damascus, it was a shock. They've heard the fighting in the area surrounding the capital. But today, they could see it. I reached an activist in Damascus. He goes by the name Amir Sadek(ph), and he described the city.

AMIR SADEK: Well, it's very, very tense for most of the people of Damascus. It's the first time for them to see tanks deployed within the city and for them to see also helicopters hovering on a very low altitude and shelling rockets inside the city, their civilian neighborhoods.

AMOS: That's Amir Sadek. He's an activist in Damascus. And he believes this is the beginning of a larger battle.

SIEGEL: Deb, there's a report today out of Israel where the chief of military intelligence was quoted as saying that "Syria has pulled troops from the Israeli border to strengthen its fight against the rebels." What do you make of that?

AMOS: Well, it shows how serious the regime is taking the challenge. I spoke to another resident of Damascus today, and he said that state media was warning civilians to get out of the neighborhood of Midan. And he said the army was moving in reinforcement. It's likely this battle is going to get much tougher tomorrow.

We're just a few days away from the holy month of Ramadan. And he said the army wants to finish this before Friday when the month of fasting begins. It remains to be seen if the army can crush the rebels in the city in the next three days. They've tried for months and they failed.

And for the first time, what we've seen is rebel groups have come together from other parts of the country to join in this fight. And at the same time, there have been activists in the city that have been marring demonstrations to divert the army.

I think it is fair to say there is going to be a lot of blood spilled on both sides in the next couple of days. There are reports of high casualties for the Syrian army, and activists are already reporting similar numbers for fighters and for civilians.

SIEGEL: Deb, thanks for keeping us posted.

AMOS: Thanks, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Deb Amos speaking to us about the fighting in Damascus from Istanbul in neighboring Turkey.

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